Above: Orion and Sirius, The Dog Star.
Our South West Florida Summers are renowned for their heat and humidity. Growing up, during Summer our gardening efforts ceased except for a few tomatoes and heat loving okra (I love okra pickles.) Today I liken going outside on a hot summer day to “opening the oven door.” But I also know that even before Summer truly arrives, the sky tells me what is on the way by showing me the constellations and their bright stars overhead and there is a point in the dead of Summer that I can go outside, early before sunrise, and greet the assurance of the coming Winter constellations and attendant bright stars such as Sirius.
Just the other day I was out with my mom and we got to talking about the heat, and what was growing vis not growing and she mentioned “It’s the Dog Days you know” and sure enough, it is. You may wonder, what a strange term, “Dog Days…” and what does it have to do with the night sky, with Summer, and growing things… Older readers may be more familiar with the term.
Dog Days are more than an ancient expression it is actually a section of time as we move through the year on this great, blue ball of water… Dog Days occur during the month’s of July and August our hottest months. The Greeks used the expression as well as the Romans and Egyptians to denote a time of the year when the sultry heat was most intense and according to Brady’s Clavis Calendarium c1813 “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.”
Astronomically / Astrologically, The Dog Days were marked by the yearly Heliacal rising of Sirius above the Eastern horizon, just before sunrise, after a period of time when Sirius had been behind the sun (from our viewpoint) and invisible. Ancient cultures used the Heliacal rising of bright stars to help set holidays and events. For Ancient Egyptians, Sirius appeared on the horizon just before the time of the yearly Nile inundation. To the Egyptians, the star was Sothis. Sothis was used as a “watchdog” for that very event. Since its rising also coincided with a time of extreme heat, the connection with hot weather was ingrained into our ancient lore: “Dog Days bright and clear / indicate a happy year. / But when accompanied by rain, / for better times our hopes are vain.”
Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation of Canis Major and the brightest star in the sky. Canis, here in SW Florida is a Winter Constellation, easily located by taking the line of belt stars of Orion, and tracing the line out to Sirius, ringed in red on the map. (see above image) The very name Sirius comes from the Greek word for “searing” or “scorching” although it’s also known as “The Sparkling One” “Nile Star” or today; “The Dog Star” There is a universality in lore regarding Sirius. The Pawnee tribe of North America, and others, referred to Sirius as the ‘Wolf Star’ which indicates this Mythology of Sirius may have extremely ancient roots. Many cultures used the risings of bright stars such as Sirius as markers of time, to tell them when to harvest but today we remember the associated “Dog Days” simply as the hottest, and occasionally most uncomfortable part of the year.